I’m sitting at my desk, avoiding some work I must do in order to do some work I want to do, and I’m reading Lenny Bruce, a chapter of The Essential Lenny Bruce called “What Is Obscene?” And with his hip Jewish druggie oft-sexist charm, Lenny spells it out by differentiating between “obscene” and “disgusting.” It’s all about arousal, he argues. If it turns you on, it’s obscene. If it offends you, it’s disgusting and, hence, not obscene.
He celebrates the importance of the First Amendment and ridicules our use of it. We can deny others’ gods, say “A fat slob, the Buddha” or “go in front of a synagogue and sing about pork.” We can disrespect any group we want, “Cause that’s our right—to be disgusting.” After all, “[T]he reason we left England was just for that right, to be disgusting.”
But obscenity is about arousing the “prurient interest,” about turning people on. And, Lenny says, “The prurient interest is like the steel interest. What’s wrong with appealing to the prurient interest? We appeal to the killing interest.” And, more, he notes the classism here. If I write about trailer trash having vivid, graphic, sloppy sex, then that’s obscene. But if I’m “classy” about it, if I know how to “handle” the sex scenes with artistic beauty (he talks about Lady Chatterly's Lover as an example), if it emerges as “legit” art, then I’m far less likely to be prosecuted. In Lenny’s words, “So, in the opinion of this court, we punish untalented artists.”